— by Susan Eirich, PhD —
Those of you who read the story of Huckleberry Bear Bear in “The Bear Who wouldn’t Budge” remember the bitter, bitter experience we had when human time and needs conflicted with animal time. Or at least Huckleberry Bear Bear’s sense of time. As a human living with wild animals, I am daily being reminded of the difference between animal time and human time. Sometimes I realize it is a gift. After the fact. In the moment of conflict between the two, I can totally lose it (perspective, I mean). There is a basic division between human time and animal time. Unless, we who are human, allow us to be our animal selves and live from animal time. Which is a very healing, satisfying thing to do, as we are animals and need to listen to the needs of that self. But it is hard. And especially difficult in these hurried times.
Sometimes we take animals for a walk for photographers. Huckleberry’s story tells of when we took him out for a morning walk with some filmmakers from England. They were on a deadline; had definite ideas of where they wanted to film and how they wanted the light (which happens to change fairly quickly over the course of the day – the sun moves across the sky. Or the earth turns depending on what perspective you choose). As he ambled along at his own pace, smelling the grasses and bushes, examining this rock and that, he didn’t find the spots the photographers wanted very attractive. So he found his own, settled in, and wouldn’t budge. He didn’t care that the light was changing. That huge rain clouds were moving in. That we were hungry. That the sun was beginning to set. He was having a gorgeous nap, surrounded by sweet smells and sounds.
If we were thinking animal time, we would have brought a picnic, perhaps had a tent in the truck, and gone for a bear walk for as long as it took and let the photographers, with their budget and time schedule dictated from afar by budget police, know that that was how it was going to be. If we had allowed for animal time, we all would have thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
It wasn’t a matter of Huckleberry not wanting to go home- he always wants to go back to that safe, familiar place. Eventually. But right then he wanted his nap. When we tried to entice him he acted like a grouchy spouse when his mate is trying to get him up. Not aggressive – just a very definite protest and refusal. An assertion of will and attending to one’s own needs.
We waited. We had a choice – we could get impatient, angry, jump up and down, look ridiculous and be totally ineffective. Or remember that there was such a thing as animal time and start to enjoy the smells and sounds, the change in the air as the clouds approached, the pacing of nature. Well the truth is we are not fully enlightened beings and we did both – remembered human demands and tried to entice him unsuccessfully- then gave up and relaxed for a while. Looked at the beauty of the clouds – then thought about the cold rain that was coming. Watched the impending sunset – and worried about the dark. Back and forth we went. Not quite as good as completely getting into the mood and moment but as I said, we are not fully enlightened beings. Finally, as evening approached, one of the times we tried he was ready. What we remembered most from that day was the peaceful bear napping; the sounds and smells and the clouds.
When we took Shomi the porcupine for walks it was a similar thing. We would be plodding along through a meadow, porcupine speed, when suddenly – plop – she would drop her 35 pounds to the ground and fall asleep. Or perhaps she fell asleep first and then dropped. Or she fell asleep as she dropped- we never could tell. She too was quite definite about not being disturbed until she was ready. There are consequences to trying to push a grumpy porcupine.
So the walks were punctuated by long waits. Then we would arrive at the trees and bushes and again, this bush here, that bush there was just so enticing. That tree had to be climbed. Sometimes she couldn’t get down. We couldn’t leave her there- it wouldn’t be safe for a human-oriented porcupine to spend the night out. She would waddle up looking for a grape.
Going for a walk with Miss Clover the badger there were no naps – her energy was too high. Instead we would suddenly realize she wasn’t with us, look around and see geysers of soil flying into the air and a rapidly disappearing rump. We’d look at each other and say “ Oh man, she’s into this for a couple of hours….”.
Taking a cougar for a walk – all bets are off. You know to set the day aside. Windwalker made the other animals look like pussycats. So to speak. A misnomer as anyone who ever tried to make a cat do anything realizes.
You’d think we’d have learned about animal time by now when we go on walks, but getting wrapped up in deadlines and external demands is a hard thing to drop. In effect, all these animals are reminding us what many wisdom traditions teach. To balance “being” with “doing.” They are inviting us to be in the moment. To enjoy the gift and physicality of being alive. To balance the demands put upon our lives by human schedules and conceptions of time with animal time that our bodies and souls crave. To lie in the sun even if we are not on vacation, until we are replete. To allow ourselves to be in animal time, which is body time. It is a necessity, not a luxury. To evaluate what is really necessary and what a well-lived life includes. To be sure we don’t get lost in our human tendency to disappear into thoughts, worries, technology, external pressures from our marketing culture.
Until we humans get better at it, we can all count on the animals we have around us to remind us. And then we have a choice: to feel annoyed or inconvenienced – or to remember the pleasures of animal time.
Dr. Susan Eirich is the Founder and Executive Director of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center. A licensed psychologist, biologist and educator, her goal is to widen the circle of conversation about conservation to include the voices of all living beings.